Monday 12 December 2022

A Shortage of Guns

Practice shows that processes in the army that flow slowly tend to rapidly accelerate after the first combat engagements. This observation applies to the German SPG program. The Germans began working on these vehicles in the second half of the 1920s, but achieved very little by the start of the Second World War. This was in part due to unrealistic expectations, particularly in the case of tank destroyers. The Germans army dreamed of high speed tank destroyers with a fully rotating turret on a halftrack chassis. Such vehicles were even built, but only as prototypes and small production batches. As a result, the Germans quickly had to build tank destroyers out of whatever was available after the war began.

Vehicles of the 128th Tank Destroyer Battalion. The vehicle in the front is the best known conversion of a Pz.Kpfw.II tank carrying a 50 mm Pak 38 gun.

A wave of invention rolled through the German army in 1940-41. This happened not out of an excess of spare time, but because German industry proved incapable of supplying the army with the necessary amount of tank destroyers. The tank destroyers that were built didn't go to the units that needed them most. In the end, the troops had to solve these problems for themselves. All of these improvisations dried up in the second half of 1942 when Marder tank destroyers turned up in numbers, but homemade conversions continued even after that. One such vehicle is colloquially referred to as 5 cm Pak 38 auf Fg.St. Pz.Kpfw.II.

The crew consisted of 4 men, 3 of which were in the fighting compartment.

The story of this vehicle begins towards the fall of 1942. Production of the 7.5 cm Pak 40/2 auf Sfl.II, better known as the Marder II, began in July of 1942. Alkett's SPG had a typical layout for German vehicles that made minimal changes to the chassis. On one hand, this approach limited the amount of ammunition that could be carried and resulted in a quite cramped fighting compartment. On the other hand, this approach made production simpler and allowed the conversion of ordinary Pz.Kpfw.II tanks into tank destroyers. The first attempts to do this took place in September-October of 1942. The 4th Tank Division attempted the conversion of three Pz.Kpfw.II tanks, but the work stalled due to an absence of guns. Proper conversions of the Pz.Kpfw.II into the 7.5 cm Pak 40/2 auf Sfl.II began in January of 1943. At least 130 were converted, but not all had the 7.5 cm Pak 40 gun.

It is likely that only one vehicle was built in this specific configuration.

In mid-June of 1943, the 12th Tank Division transferred 10 Pz.Kpfw.II tanks to the 559th Tank Destroyer Battalion. These tanks were to be converted into 7.5 cm Pak 40/2 auf Sfl.II, but there were not enough guns available for them. 5 cm Pak 38 guns were used instead. It's likely that only one such vehicle was built, but this conversion became famous. At least 3 converted vehicles (including the one with the 5 cm Pak 38) were sent to the 128th Tank Destroyer Battalion of the 23rd Tank Division. The 23rd Tank Division was photographed frequently, and so the converted vehicle was thoroughly documented.

The fighting compartment of the 5 cm Pak 38 auf Fg.St. Pz.Kpfw.II. The ready rack is located on the right.

The concept of the vehicle known as the 5 cm Pak 38 auf Fg.St. Pz.Kpfw.II was not much different from the 7.5 cm Pak 40/2 auf Sfl.II. Instead of a turret, a 5 cm Pak 38 mount was installed on the turret platform. The existing casemate was unsuitable for this gun, and so new plates were cut locally. Extra plates were also welded to the gun shield. There was no radio in this vehicle. The crew consisted of four men: the commander, gunner, loader, and driver.

Extra plates were welded to the right of the gun.

The 7.5 cm Pak 40/2 auf Sfl.II concept was also followed when it came to placing the ammunition. It was logical that most of it was carried on the engine deck. There were also some differences. Instead of individual slots for ammunition, the racks were designed to carry stock 4-round containers. Another container was located inside the fighting compartment, playing the role of a ready rack. In order to retain access to the engine, the racks on the engine deck could be removed.

Ammunition storage on the engine deck.

The hybrid was worse than the regular tank destroyer, but better a bird in the hand than two in the bush. There were still targets that this vehicle could fight even in the summer of 1943. The 128th Tank Destroyer Battalion had a diverse roster anyway. By 1944 it had a captured SU-76I and a SU-85. As for the 5 cm Pak 38 auf Fg.St. Pz.Kpfw.II, it quietly vanished somewhere in early 1944 along with the regular Marder IIs.

A front line improvisation in all its glory.

It is often written that only one such vehicle existed, but that is not the case. While these were definitely bespoke conversions, they were not unique. There are records of several similar vehicles, but it is not known where they were converted. These conversions are usually fairly clumsily done. It is likely that they were made in a front line workshop of some tank destroyer battalion attached to an infantry division. It's doubtful that more than 5-10 were ever built.

The simplest way to convert a Pz.Kpfw.II tank into a tank destroyer.

These ersatz vehicles vanished in 1943. Chiefly, this had to do with the arrival of the Panzerjager 38 tank destroyers. 638 were built in 1943 alone, which was enough to saturate tank destroyer battalions. The desperate need for tank destroyers disappeared, plus the Pz.Kpfw.II chassis became more and more rare. 997 Pz.Kpfw.II tanks were available at the start of 1943, but only 399 by the start of 1944. Conversions of tanks into the 7.5 cm Pak 40/2 auf Sfl.II stopped in January of 1944. The odds of an ersatz tank destroyer with a 5 cm Pak 38 gun dropped to zero.

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